My son went out to Paisley Park last night, before it rained. He wanted to see the crowd, the scene, the memorials – and be part of them – that continued to gather outside the recording studio complex where Prince had died last Thursday morning.
“There are a lot of people,” he said, calling me on his way back.
There sure are.
A lot of people, a lot of tributes.
Fans clutching flowers and homemade signs at Paisley Park or First Avenue, the club in downtown Minneapolis where the young Prince often performed, fans posting videos on Facebook or calling up his songs on their smart phones. Bridges, ballparks, Broadway, landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower – all lit up in purple light. Musicians and singers from classic rocker Bruce Springsteen to the cast of the hit Broadway show “Hamilton” to the country band Little Big Town to the falsetto-voiced pop star Adam Levine singing Prince songs on stage. The 92-year-old magazine the New Yorker quickly coming up with a new cover for this week’s issue: a painting of purple rain drops falling against a purple background.
Why such an outpouring of grief, respect, tribute for Prince, the 57-year-old musician from the Twin Cities?
Many of the reasons are so clear and have been stated so often I am only going to quickly list them here: he was a musical genius, not a word to throw around lightly, of course. But he was: a brilliant composer, who could play – and sometimes did – every instrument on albums he recorded. Not just a few tooted notes on a horn, or a simple strum on a bass guitar. He was exceptional at them all. Exceptional. He fused so many forms of modern music – blues, jazz, pop, funk, rhythm-and-blues, hip-hop. The hard-rock guitar solo that crescendos in his pop-funk-blues hit “When Doves Cry” is unforgettable. It’s not just that he fused all these styles and created almost a new form of music, and certainly a new style called the “Minneapolis Sound.” It’s that he could be a master within each of those forms. Jack of all styles, master of them all, too.
I said I was going to make a list and then I strayed into a longer discussion.
Here’s more of the list: he played and sang with such intensity and passion, whether rocking out or dancing, or in ballads. His live shows were amazing. You got your money’s worth if you went (Elton John called Prince the greatest entertainer he’s ever seen). He fought the corporate system, something most regular Americans could relate to. He became his own industry in the long-held American tradition of a self-made man: a successful business owner with several dozen employees, built his own state-of-the-art recording studio. He shared his musical talents: many other musicians have sung his praises in recent days for his collaborative heart – how he would write songs for others to help artists get their start, or revive an aging singer’s career; how he supported new bands. He was committed to his religion. And he was committed to his home state, one of the most remarkable qualities about a performer who was so shy, and yet so easily identifiable. He stood out in Minnesota, and maybe could have lived more anonymously in the big crowds of L.A. or New York. He even tried L.A. for a while, but never did go Hollywood: he lived in Minnesota, rooted for Minnesota sports teams, shopped locally (!). Would nod at a fan when he was recognized. There have long been jokes about Minnesotans’ inferiority complexes – Garrison Keillor has made great radio and literary hay by joking Minnesotans are pretty much satisfied with simply being “above average.” So it meant something, it was a compliment, when Prince showed repeatedly that he preferred his home state.
He was flawed, of course. Two failed marriages. He made a couple movies after “Purple Rain” that were stinkers. He could be a tough businessman, tough on employees and reporters in his insistence on secrecy and control, tough in the studio as he demanded perfection. But he often owned up to his flaws and would apologize. He was accountable, in other words, for his behavior – something so many celebrities and very wealthy people have forgotten to be.
So, we have so many reasons to have liked Prince – to admire, respect, even be awed by him. That’s why we celebrate who he was. That’s why we grieve who we have lost. My son took a photo at Paisley Park last night that showed the semi-truck/bus that Prince would take on tour. My son noted the irony: “he’ll never tour again.”
• • • •
I am going to play pop psychologist for a moment, though, too.
In recent days, I have talked with a couple of people who were surprised by the outpouring of love for Prince. These were people who are not especially pop or rock music fans, or who are from an older generation. One was a man almost 80, who watched the TV news and understood that Prince was a great musician but did not get why even casual fans have been so moved by his death.
I thought about that for a little bit. I’m kind of a casual fan now, although when I was young I bought and played and replayed many of Prince’s albums. (Prince was a couple of years older than I am, and his first two big hit albums were released when I was in my early 20s.) I was one of those who was shaken last Thursday: my friend Tom Berg sent me a couple of text messages saying news was breaking that a body had been found at Paisley Park and that it was suspected to be Prince’s. I turned on WCCO Radio from Minneapolis and, within a few minutes, one of its reporters at the scene at Paisley Park reported live on the air that authorities had confirmed Prince’s death. I texted Tom back a bunch of times with that news.
So why were so many jolted, why did surprise and then grief pour from so many of us? Is there something more than just Prince’s being a wonderful musician or dying so young?
For Minnesotans, sure.
I am a Minnesotan, too, and have always been proud that Prince was – and remained – one of us.
But in a strange way – and I don’t mean to sidestep the fact that he has died – I wonder if we all needed this. Needed it now. Needed to be brought together by Prince’s death.
Don’t get me wrong on this. I am not saying it is good he died. But I am wondering if, in his death, some good things are happening.
It seems this has been such a long, difficult past couple of years. Terrorism attacks around the world. An ugly, long presidential election campaign that has been full of rancor – and now has become tedious in its rancor and divisiveness. Racial tension in so many American cities, so many American homes.
It has been hard.
But somehow, all of a sudden, it seems as if we could all breathe together again – as we mourn, as we celebrate, as we remember Prince.
These moments happen in our history. On the national level: The Pearl Harbor attack. The assassination of President Kennedy. The 9/11 attacks. More locally, incidents like tornadoes or floods. For as divided as we sometimes are as a country or a people, it is always amazing to me how we can also pull together.
It’s not just at times of tragedy that we do. The nation stopped, too, in the summer of 1969 to watch Neil Armstrong take man’s first step on the moon. When Howard Sinker, the online editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, shared on Facebook an image of the Star Tribune’s cover the day after Prince’s death, I immediately thought of two other front pages from the Star Tribune that looked very similar and reflected two other events that also had brought the whole state, the whole region together: the front pages the day after the Minnesota Twins had won the 1987 and the 1991 World Series.
We lost Prince. But we have also been reminded, I think, through him that America can be be good. Still is good.
Maybe we all needed that reminder. And maybe we needed to have something in common again — to rally around something good, Prince’s music, and to join, emotionally, around the same thing: our shock, our sadness, at losing him.
And maybe that is important in this time when politicians like to tell us all that is wrong with America. Prince worked hard, very hard. He cared about quality in the products, if you will, that his customers – his fans – bought. He had passion for what he did. Like great inventors of the American past, he saw new ways of doing things – then had the drive and belief to do them. He believed in community, and often put his money – all kinds of stories of his charitable giving have surfaced – where his community was.
Maybe, in addition to honoring his music, some of us are thankful for all this. The soft-spoken, shy but intelligent Prince showed that we don’t have to be an ugly, shouting nation, that our capacity for greatness and brilliance still exists and can be achieved not through vitriol but through the age-old qualities of trying to be a decent person, through hard work, commitment, and even – when you’re rocking a guitar solo under stage lights – through the pleasure of creativity and art.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I am drawing too many big, broad conclusions from Prince’s death.
For now, though, let me believe I’m right.